What is the difference between a black and white rhino?

This is an incredibly common question and for a lot of people, a rhino is a rhino is a rhino. There are in fact, however five different species of rhino left worldwide and in this region we have the possibility of seeing two species; namely the black and white rhinos. The naming in itself has created confusion because both species of rhino are in fact grey (or at least until they have a mud bath) but there are some very distinctive differences between the two. Some of these include appearance, habitat, food preference and behaviour. With photographs and easy categorisation, this blog aims to be the guide that clarifies exactly which rhino you’re looking at and why.

 

Size: First and foremost, the white (square-lipped rhino) is substantially larger in size than its counterpart, the black (hook-lipped rhino). A white rhino female weighs about 1, 700kg and the male about 2,300 kg, compared with a black rhino which ranges between 800 – 1,400 kg.

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The white rhino is substantially larger than the black and has a distinctive barrel-shaped body.

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The black rhino is slighter, smaller and more compactly built than its counterpart.

Mouth and food preferences: One of the greatest differences though is the shape of the mouth. A white rhino has a very broad, flat, wide lip, which makes perfect sense as this animal is a grazer and requires a mouth designed for this. The broad muscular lips are ideal for gripping and tearing up grass and it quite noisily smacks its lips together as it feeds. In effect these large lips act as a non-mechanised lawnmower. The black rhino on the other hand is a browser and feeds on leaves, shoots and branches. As a result it has a prehensile, pointed lip, which it uses to grab hold of often very spiky trees.

 

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A young white rhino attempts to grip a piece of grass with its wide mouth. There is currently a name shift happening and some people refer to white rhinos as square-lipped rhinos.

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The black rhino, also known as the hook-lipped rhino, has a completely different mouth. This rhino’s mouth is pointed and prehensile, designed for gripping and biting off browsing material.

Body shape:  The white rhino is much longer, bigger and more cumbersome looking whereas the black rhino is shorter and more compact. A white rhino also has a relatively flat back with a small hump about three quarters of the way along its body where a black rhino has a deep arch in its back. Although this may not be easy to see when the animal faces you directly, it is very obvious from the side profile.

As discussed above, these animals have very differing diets, which also affects their body shape. Remember that the white rhino will always have its head on the ground because it’s feeding on grass. It has a long face, small eyes and a weakened neck because it doesn’t need to lift that large head to feed. You will therefore never see a white rhino wandering around carrying its head high (or at least not for long periods of time). A black rhino on the other hand needs to carry its head high as it spends most of the time feeding off of trees. If a black rhino picks up the scent of a threat, it will swivel its body with its head held high attempting to pinpoint the danger. The white rhino is more likely to keep its head low and rather swivel its ears to keep safe.

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Notice the very long body of the white rhino with the small hump sitting about three quarters of the way down its back. Also notic, how in a natural, relaxed position its head hangs low to the ground.

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The black rhino, on the other hand, has a much shorter body with a deep arch in its back. This animal is a browser and so the way that it naturally carries its head high is a distinctive give away too.

 

The ears: That brings us to the ears. Because the white rhino has poor eyesight and a nose that is always on the ground, its ears are hugely important to its overall awareness and safety. As a result it has very long, tubular ears that funnel sound into them and which it swivels independently like little satellites even when it is resting. The black rhino on the other hand has its ears, eyes and nose high in the air most of the time meaning it is less dependent on just one of its senses. As a result its ears are much smaller and rounder in shape.

 

Ears

The long, trumpet- shaped ears of the white rhino.

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The much smaller, round ears of the black rhino. They may look larger in this photo, but that is mainly because the the proportion to the smaller head size is very different.

Horn: What is also interesting is that the horn length also tends to differ between the species. The white rhino tends to have a longer front horn with a much shorter second horn. The black rhino, on the other hand tends to have a slightly shorter front horn and longer second horn than the white rhino, meaning that its two horns are more similar in length.

 

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Notice how the front horn of the white rhino is very long and the second horn is much shorter. Although rhinos will differ in horn length from one individual to the next, this size pattern is common of this species.

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The black rhino, however, normally has a shorter front horn and a longer second one than the white rhino. This means that their two horns are much more similar in length.

 

Habitat: Although the habitats of black and white rhino can overlap, there are definitely specific areas that you would expect to see one more then the other. For example, a white rhino will typically be found in grasslands or in areas that are more open, whereas a black rhino will be found in thickets and dense brush where its food preference is more prevalent.

 

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This illustration taken from Smithers’ Guide to the Mammals of Southern Africa, is a fantastic way to see the differences between the two species. Notice the difference in the ears, mouth, body shape, track, head height and even head shape.

Behaviour: Black rhino have always had a reputation for being more aggressive and inquisitive than the white rhino, which are normally a little more placid. Although I do think there is truth to this, I do also think that habitat plays a part in it. Imagine that you’re driving or walking through the thick habitat of a black rhino. In all likelihood when you come upon each other it will be at much closer quarters than if you spotted a white rhino in a grassland at a distance. When you’re in an animal’s comfort zone, it is much more likely to act in an aggressive, defensive manner than if you saw it at a distance and it had more of a chance to run from you. Having said this though, people do seem to have more close encounters with grumpy black rhinos than white ones.

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A black rhino charges towards a vehicle. These animals are renowned for being more curious and aggressive than the white rhino. Photograph by Dean Wraith photography

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A white rhino runs from a group of wild dog pups. Although the rhino is a huge animal and the young dogs do not actually stand a hope of catching him, the rhino still ran from these small animals. With poor eyesight and a placid manner, white rhino will often run from a threat. Having said this though, they are still potentially dangerous animals and should not be underestimated.

Dung: Being able to look at these animals and tell the difference is one thing but amazingly enough you can also do it without seeing them at all. Rhinos share dung middens (a place where they repeatedly defecate, mostly for territorial purposes) and in those piles, the dung is very easily distinguishable. Firstly the white rhino dung is made up purely of grass. It is badly digested and looks very similar to the grass that comes out of your lawn mower. A black rhino however, has twigs and branches in its dung. Amazingly, every single piece in its dung is shawn off at a 45 degree angle due to the way that its teeth grind together as it feeds. This way, you will never be able to confuse it with any other species. The dung also differs in colour. Funnily enough, a black rhino’s dung is very brown and a white rhino’s dung is very black. This is due to the high levels of melanin in the grass that the white rhino eats.

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A white rhino kicks the dung he is dropping into a midden. By doing this he is attaching the scent onto his feet, and as he walks through his territory, he leaves a very distinct sign that he is the boss. White and black rhinos sometimes share these middens and so both kinds of dung can be found in them.

Numbers: Accurate numbers are difficult to discern as both public and private game reserves have become cagey about statistics due to the explosion of rhino poaching throughout Africa. General estimates however suggest that there are about 15 000 white and 3 000 black rhinos left in the wild. The IUCN lists the white rhino as Near Threatened and the black rhino as Critically Endangered. In the early 1900s there were hundreds of thousands of rhinos roaming through Africa and the black rhino species was the most prolific. Civil wars, habitat changes, illegal poaching, and competing species have all decimated this number though. This is one of the crucial reasons that conservation areas such as Londolozi and the Greater Kruger National Park are in place today.

 

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Two white rhinos rest peacefully together. These animals are currently being highly persecuted for their horn, which is now valued at about US$100 000 per kilogram. Although there are many reasons rhinos have been persecuted over the centuries, this poaching for their horn is currently their biggest threat.

So although these two species are both large, grey mammals, you can see that there are some major differences between them. My hope is that from now on, by keeping an eye out for these various distinctions, you won’t have to worry about getting the two confused again.

Filed under Featured Wildlife

About the Author

Amy Attenborough

Media Team

Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

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13 Comments

on The Difference Between The White and Black Rhino

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Evette Hartig
Guest

Thank you Amy, great information clarifying the differences.

Dave Mills
Guest

Great information and great photos to show the differences. Thanks

Mike Adamsky
Guest

Thanks for the info! Any truth to what I heard while staying at Londolozi that, when walking with babies, the black rhinos trail the babies behind them, while the white rhinos keep the babies out-front?

Amy Attenborough

Hi Mike. Yes this is quite a well accepted theory. The thinking is that because a white rhino lives in more open habitat, it can run behind the youngster and guide it with its horn if need be. The black rhino however, lives in thicker habitat and so needs to carve a path through the brush that the youngster can follow behind on. Having said this though, I have seen a black rhino running ahead of its mother and a white rhino trailing its mother. As is so often the case in the bush, it really is dependent on the situation and although there may be a pattern, it doesn’t always necessarily play out that way. Hope this helps! Thanks, Amy

Krishna
Guest

Thanks Amy for clarifying the differences, I can now look at my Londolozi rhino photos and see that they are all white ones.Next Londolozi trip I will want to find a black one. Great blog thanks again.

Amy Attenborough

Hi Krishna. Yes with black rhino numbers what they are and with the habitat at Londolozi being predominantly suited to white rhino, we don’t really see black rhino. There have however been a few sightings over the last few years, so you never know. We’ll be sure to keep you posted if any are spotted. Thanks, Amy

Jill Grady
Guest

Really interesting blog Amy! I had no idea there were so many differences between the White and Black Rhino.

Trevor and Marina Ebert
Guest

Hello Amy,
We popped over in May 2015 for our nephews ( Robert & Kendra Ebert’s 15th wedding anniversary) and whilst we were there I picked up on an interesting snippet of info re Rhinos.
White Rhinos are actually not white but were called White Rhinos due to the earliest Afrikaans and Dutch settlers naming them ” Wijd” meaning wide, as they had wide broad mouths.
The English settlers mispronounced “wijd” for white, and this is how the broad mouthed Rhinos came to be called white.
Did not however know that there were so many points of difference between the white and black Rhinos.
Thank you for the most interesting article.
Kind Regards
Marina and Trevor Ebert

Monique Raddall
Guest

Great read! Always felt embarrassed not knowing the difference 🙂

Barbara Jones
Guest

Do Black Rhinos and White Rhinos ever mate?

Lizeka Masilela
Guest

Little did I know. Thank you for the info. All along, I thought that there’s only 1 difference, viz. (mouth & food preferences), yet there is a lot. So interesting. One question that I also would like to know is, do black and white rhino mate?

Amy Attenborough

Hi Lizeka. So glad you found it helpful. Black and white rhino are in fact two different species and do not attempt to breed. I haven’t heard or read of any reports in the wild or in captivity. Thanks, Amy

Arafat
Guest

Hi Amy. Thank you for all this information , now I have learnt a lot about rhinos

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